AHA Member Spotlight: Laura F. Edwards
Laura F. Edwards is the Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty in the history department at Princeton University. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey, and Evanston, Illinois, and has been a member since 1990.
Alma mater/s: BA (American culture), Northwestern University, 1985; MA (history), University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1987; PhD (history), University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1991
Fields of interest: US, legal, women, African American
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?
When I was in high school, I played oboe and intended to be a professional musician. My determination was such that I managed to find my way from East Tennessee to Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, which actually diverted me away from music: I took an AP history course and fell in love with the subject.
What do you like the most about where you live and work?
As I learned early on, an academic career requires sacrifice on the front end. But I always viewed the work more as a calling than just a job. As an undergraduate mentor told me when I was applying for graduate school: the only reason to do this work is because you love it. Now that I am well into my career, the investment is paying off. I am surprised it all came together and thankful that it did.
What projects are you currently working on?
My new book, Only the Clothes on Her Back: Clothing and the Hidden History of Power in the Nineteenth-Century United States. The book explores practices, commonly known then but now long forgotten, which made textiles—clothing, cloth, bedding, and accessories, such as shoes and hats—a unique form of property that people without rights could own and exchange. The value of textiles depended on law, and it was law that turned these goods into a secure form of property for marginalized people, who not only used these textiles as currency, credit, and capital, but also as entree into the new republic’s economy and governing institutions.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?
I started out as a social historian and have become a legal historian, although I have always been interested in the relationship of marginalized people to power. Over time, it became clear that law was essential to my interests. Law constitutes power relations and reveals how people made and remade them.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?
I made one of my most memorable finds as a graduate student, researching my dissertation. It is an 1868 North Carolina case involving two African American children who were walking home from school across a white neighbor’s land. He took offense, assaulted them, and then pulled down his pants and shook his penis at them. I was shocked by this graphic display of power and riveted by the determined response of the children, who fought back, and their mother, who took the man to court. I used the case to open my first article and have returned to it repeatedly because there are so many layers to it.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
One of my favorite books is E. P. Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters. Every time I read it, I am amazed.
What do you value most about the history discipline?
I love that the past is never what you think it will be. It always surprises you. Working through those mysteries is revealing about all that we take for granted about ourselves and our society today. The past makes us see new possibilities.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you?
AHA membership is about being part of an engaged community of scholars who care about the work of doing history and who see its broader public importance. Contributing to that community and tending to its work is really important—it keeps history alive.
Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
As a job seeker, I had scheduled two interviews too close together. The first went long, the second was in another hotel, and I could not find my way out of the sprawling DC Marriott. I finally exited to sleet and ice. With no coat or umbrella, I ran across the street, slipped, and slid the rest of the way on my knee. I arrived at the second interview late, with blood dripping down my leg. A kind woman handed me a tissue in the elevator with a caveat: “I don’t know how much it will actually help.” I got the job—and now pack an umbrella when going to the AHA.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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